Right Name, Wrong Name: Acknowledging Trans Identities

One major issue for trans* people is getting their right name accepted and recognized, in day-to-day use and in official contexts. Having people use the correct name is an important step for us, and having other people (and the government) decide not to is an common feature of our experiences and oppression.

But first, let’s pause the trans* issues and talk about names in general. Just bear with me for a few paragraph — the juicy trans* stuff is coming up.

All names are strongly connoted

Cis or trans*, everyone’s name is important. Despite the existence of a few gender neutral first names, naming is one of the many ways gender is assigned at birth, one that is more total, more complete than the M and F on the birth certificate, or even the set of clothes and the painting schemes chosen for a child. Names are used all the time, while sex markers are not (problematic though they are); names are more or less stable, while pants or skirts and walls can change at will. And in some languages, the first and the last name are gendered: Maria (f) Sharapova (f) is daughter to Yuri (m) Sharapov (m).

Yet names, chosen at birth or inherited from the family, say more than just gender. They tell us a lot about the parents — who they are, what is their place society in terms of class, what language they speak or where they come from, perhaps even their religion or their favorite piece of fiction — and, by extension, they tell us about the child’s background. Sometimes, when there is a lot of ethnic hatred, people from an oppressed minority group will choose a new name instead of using a culturally connoted one. This may either denote a desire for affiliation into the dominant culture, or be an attempt to avoid discrimination. In this situation, using the birth-assigned name instead of the new name may expose someone to rejection, harassment and violence. Godwin example of the day: using an undercover Jew’s real name (say, Eli Steinberg, or Rosa Cohen, or some other name of the sort) in 1944 Germany may very well cause their death.

In day-to-day interactions, someone’s name is like the basic way to identify them. It’s a defining part of identity. Using the wrong name for someone means you forget who they are: involuntary omission means you don’t consider them important; voluntary omission or use of the wrong name is an attack. A few fictional example:

The Order of the Stick: **Prequel book spoiler alert** In the prequel book Start of Darkness, high priest Redcloak uses this pseudonym with Xykon because the sorcerer would forget his (unstated) real name, but would remember his red cloak. Indeed, Xykon forgets everyone’s name. Redcloak’s brother (named Right Eye by Xykon because his left one was cut) is insulted at this, and continues to call him Big Brother. But when Redcloak betrays and kills him, his last words are: “Goodbye, Recloak” — signifying that he only sees him as Xykon’s minion now and disowning him as a brother.

Yes Minister: In season one, Hacker’s advisor, Frank Wiesel, always has his name mispronounced as “Weasel” as an insult by the civil servants, especially by Sir Humphrey. However, when Hacker and Humphrey want to shut him up by corrupting him into going on a QANGO, Humphrey says his name correctly: “‘Mr. Wiesel’, I said!” — a line that only serves to have him say the right name, as a display of respect.

Satyricon: During the famous banquet scene, one of the guests lauds a certain Safinius: “How pleasant he was when returning salutations! He gave everyone his name, like one of us”, i.e. he didn’t need a slave to give him the names of the people he met. His knowledge of people’s name was a sign of his proximity, of how he cared about ordinary people.

So how is the name a trans* issue?

Many trans* people change their first name as part of their transition. Some trans* people also change their last name. Other trans* people don’t change anything because they have a gender neutral name, or because they have a non-binary identity that wouldn’t be recognizable by any name we use, or because of other reasons. Still, on the whole, choosing and starting to use a new name is an experience the majority of trans people have in common.

The basic reason trans* people change their name is because their old name doesn’t match their identity. What this mismatch means in terms of identity varies according to the individual. For most, it is part of their gender expression, as it tells other people in which category (M/F) they should be; for a few, it is a way to tell other people they fit in neither. For some, their name is a way to break with their older, pre-transition self; for others, it is a hidden identity finally allowed to break through. For those whose family was less than accepting, their name can be a way to express their independence, their autonomy in their life and identity. For many, it is a part of their identity they feel very strongly about. And for the majority of us, it is also a way to avoid the stigma and discrimination that comes from being trans*, as having a gendered name different from our expressed gender identity can reveal trans* status and create unpleasant, even dangerous situations.

Not using a trans* person’s chosen name is a way to tell them you don’t acknowledge who they are, and to deny them their identity. It’s fairly impolite and unfriendly, even mean. It also exposes them as a trans* person. Seeing a woman’s ID with the name John Smith immediately marks her as a trans* person, forcing her to come out and explain why the ID and herself don’t communicate the same gender. Using her old name before other people does the same thing. Because she must now be trans* publicly, she is in danger of having services denied, of being harassed or attacked, or of having her identity further denied by other people. Using the wrong name is not just impolite and dismissive: it’s plainly dangerous.

When I explain to cis people why using the right name is important, I often say something like this:

Let’s say that you, Bob, were always called Jennifer, no matter how often or how hard you ask to be called Bob. Even though in you look more like a Bob than like a Jennifer, it’s still Jennifer. On your ID, on your school records, on every paper you have at home, you’re still. And you can’t change it without going through a long and difficult process. That’s what it is to be trans*.

Oh, and with the same principle, I also made this birth certificate for our Premier Philippe Couillard (if he were trans), whose government still hasn’t put in application the new legislation for legal sex change without surgery:

Premier Couillard's Trans Birth Certificat

Translation of the interesting bits: Copy of Birth Certificate of a trans person. First name(s): Sylvie (No proof of hormone therapy)Sex : Female (She is still fertile, change declined). [Beneath: Mr. Couillard, this is what your birth certificat would say if you were trans under your government.]

Though these are telling thought experiments of what it means to be called the wrong name as a trans person, in truth, what it means to us is even stronger, in ways privileged people can’t fully understand. Our birth-assigned name is also the preferred named of cissexism, that of hesitant parents, of dismissive former friends, of harassing colleagues, the name demanded from all the uncooperative administrations of the world, the name associated with all the bad experiences we live through because of our gender misassignation. It is attached to trauma and suffering. As a consequence, just as we care much more about correct use of pronouns than cis people, we feel very strongly about what name is used to talk about us.

Asking for a trans* person’s birth-assigned name digs into their past — sometimes a past full of suffering and misery they’d rather leave behind — for something they’d prefer to hide because of the trauma it caused and causes them. What are you gonna do with it? It’s really none of your business to know under which name you should imagine your best friend Marco as his pre-transition self — quite a morbid form of curiosity, really. And asking for it to share the news is even worse. In the hand of transphobic people, someone’s birth name is a weapon to deny who they are, or to look for information on their old self (e.g. pre-transition pictures). It’s especially problematic, even dangerous, when journalists publish it as another piece of information for their brilliant masterpiece of media work (#sarcasm) that will stay as a piece of record forever and be readily available online. Here, listen to what Calpernia Adams has to say on old names — in case you found me extreme or something on this, notice how her opinion is even stronger than mine. Sure, that’s not everyone’s experience, and some trans* people don’t feel strongly about hiding their old name, especially when they are not far along in their transition, but it’s still not a very polite thing to ask for — if a trans* person you know feels fine with telling their old name, let them do so themself.

Now, I don’t know how it’s done everywhere in the world, but in most places (except cool countries like the UK and Argentine), you can’t just ask the government to use your correct name. Here, in Quebec, we need at least to be on hormones or to have had some sort of surgery, and to acquire costly proofs of a gender dysphoria diagnosis — that is, before the wheels are put in motion, because it takes almost a year of bureaucracy to get everything sorted out. Not everyone wants hormones or can have access to them, so this is discriminatory. Oh, and if you’re still minor, you need parental support, which is far from guaranteed for some people. By forcing people to use a name that might put them in danger until arbitrary criteria are met, government institutions take an active part in sustaining transphobic discrimination. In addition, having The Government use the wrong name gives everyone else the lead in denying your identity — whenever someone sees your ID, they may decide to use the name they read there. Individuals are sort of okay at using the right name anyway, but institutions are not, “because it’s the law”. This sort of excuse allows them to dismiss trans* people’s demands as impossible by transfering the blame on the government (which, most of the time, does not actually forbid anyone to use a trans* person’s name). As a consequence, it’s almost impossible here to get any sort of official recognition without going through the full government procedure — so without hormones, you are without protection and recognition.

Whenever I think of government records, I remember Orwell’s 1984. Oceania’s government proceeds from a subjective epistemology where Truth is what is recorded by the government. In a sense, as I know as a historian, what is recorded from the past becomes what is true: without direct, immediate knowledge of something, we must rely on indirect, mediated evidence, such as government records. What the government does by not recognizing our names is to hide trans* existences, forcing as it does their histories and identities to fit its cissexist mould. It is deciding our identities by statute to create its own subjective Truth — despite our objective, lived identities and names, and despite the real dangers this decreed Truth creates for trans* people.

In a nutshell, just use our names. We use yours, do the same. Anyone doing otherwise is contributing to transphobia and creating a climate that excludes and endangers trans* people. No one should be limited to who the government says they are. And the government should care for people’s asserted identities, not for its intact records.


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